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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Playing It Smart: Should you make progressive jackpot side bets on table games?

10 August 2009

Side bets on table games, especially those with high progressive jackpots, are popular on both sides of the great casino divide. They offer: 1) solid citizens who prefer tables to slots shots at big scores for small bets; 2) jackpots high enough to be seductive while occasionally also giving current players an edge on their action funded principally from previous players' pockets rather than the bosses' bounty; 3) fat profits for casinos without patrons going bust quickly, or at all, such that they miss out on gratifying gambling experiences, win or lose.

Caribbean Stud popularized the paradigm and set a pattern others now pursue. Here's how it works.

In the "main game," participants must wager at least the table minimum on the "ante" to participate in a round. If they don't like their cards, they may fold and yield the ante; otherwise, they "call" the dealer with a second wager twice the size of the ante. Further, prior to the start of the round and irrespective of the amount of the ante, players may make a $1 side bet. In most casinos, the side bet pays the current jackpot for a royal, 10 percent of the jackpot for a non-royal straight flush, $100 for four of a kind, $75 for a full house, and $50 for a flush.

A $10,000 award on a $1 bet beguiles lots of bettors, as activity on many slot machines attests. And the progressive feature often raises the jackpot to $100,000, $200,000, or more before it's paid and resets to the seed, so the appeal gains with time. This phenomenon exemplifies "utility theory" in practice. A lowly $1, or multiple instances of $1, appears to be chump change compared with $10,000 or $100,000 at once, relegating the remote chance of realization to irrelevance.

The casino keeps $0.29 from every $1 side bet and adds $0.71 to the jackpot. Therefore, from the joint's viewpoint, edge is 29 percent minus something to cover the seed. It's trickier from the players' perspective. With a $10,000 jackpot the "expected value" of a $1 bet is about $0.26 so the effective edge being fought starts at the complementary 74 percent. At a jackpot of roughly $263,000, the expected value of the bet is $1 and the players' edge turns positive. The casino gets $0.29 but players' returns are boosted by what others have lost. As the total climbs higher, expected value exceeds $1 and the players' edge rises as well.

Of course, edge involves both chance and amount. And, regardless of jackpot size, the likelihood of any hit at all on the side bet is low one out of 273. This means far more rounds lose than win, so dollars tend to trickle steadily from bettor bankrolls. Utility comes to the fore since folks betting $10 on ante may be set back $10 or $30, or ahead much more, on the main game so $1 per round lost on the side seems like chicken feed. Indeed, if a $10 player goes broke with a run of bad luck, it's undoubtedly a string of $10 and $30 loses, not the $1 bets, that caused it.

In contrast, the casino averages earnings over $0.50 per round in the main game for a player with a $10 ante and $0.29 for anyone making the $1 side bet. So the side bet boosts the house's revenues while not subjecting patrons to the fatal downswings that can occur when $30 is up for grabs.

Bottom line: is the Caribbean Stud, or any similar high progressive jackpot side bet, a reasonable option? Ultimately, as always, it's a matter of personal preference.

Some credible gaming gurus advise avoiding it in Caribbean Stud unless the jackpot is near or above $263,000. This, because edge is too adverse and hit rate at any return level is too low. Others advocate always playing it. One reason is utility; another is how you'd feel if you didn't make the bet and got a royal even for a trifling $10,000. One answer may be to stay completely away from anything resembling a game that costs more than $0.50 per round when you start with $10 but can lose up to $30, while fantasizing about a jackpot with roughly one chance in 650,000 of a strike. As the wily wordsmith, Sumner A Ingmark, wisely warned:

A gambler who's serious rightfully bristles,
At games whose allure is their bells and their whistles.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.